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The International Social Studies Project
in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOUTH AFRICA

 South Africa has been the site of a long, complex, and often hostile relationship between the Boers (also known as Afrikaners), the British, and local peoples.  Race has always been a powerful force in South Africa, dating back to the original settlement of the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch.

South Africa's Origins

South Africa was founded as the Cape Colony in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company.  The outpost served as a supply port for the company's ships as they sailed the trade routes between Europe and Asia.  Over time, Dutch settlers later known as the Boers, or Afrikaners, migrated to the area.  They came into contact and then conflict with two indigenous groups, the San and Khoikhoi, residents of the region since the Stone Age.

Early in the 19th century Great Britain took over the Cape Colony.  By 1834, many Boers began to trek northward to escape British rule.  As they moved inland, the Boers fought with Zulus and other local peoples, took their land, and established the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  By the 1870s and 1880s, the British, as they moved inland, also fought great battles against the Zulus.

In the mid-1880s rich deposits of diamonds and gold were discovered.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of British and other Europeans came to the Cape and the Transvaal Republic to seek their fortune.

Great Britain and British settlers defeated the Boer republics in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).  In 1910, Great Britain combined its own colonies of the Cape and Natal with the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to form the Union of South Africa.  Under the new constitution, black South Africans were denied the right to vote.  In most of the country, they were also deprived of the right to own land.  In 1912, South Africa's repression of its nonwhite population led to the creation of the African National Congress (ANC), which became the primary voice for black equality and freedom.

The Rise of Apartheid

South Africa's racism acquired international condemnation after the National Party, dominated by Afrikaners, came to power in 1948, following whites-only elections.  Over the next several decades South Africa's racist policies, known as apartheid, were institutionalized.  Segregation of blacks, coloreds (those of mixed race), and Asians was reinforced, the limited nonwhite political representation in Parliament was eliminated, and opposition to segregation was harshly repressed.

 Apartheid laws included, but were not limited to:

   the Population Registration Act, which classified South Africans at birth as black, colored, Asian, or white

   the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, which set aside 13 percent of South Africa's land as tribal homeland for South Africa's blacks, who made up 70 percent of its population

   the Group Areas Act, which enforced residential segregation

   the Pass Laws, which controlled nonwhite movement into white areas and facilities

   the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which sanctioned segregation at beaches, libraries, entertainment venues, and all other public facilities

   the Mixed Marriage and Immorality Acts, which prohibited marriages and sex between races

   and a host of restrictions on the press and on political activities.

 From the late 1940s through the late 1980s, South Africa was a segregated country whose white minority repressed its nonwhite majority.

The Fall of Apartheid

Banned from 1960 to 1990, the African National Congress mobilized considerable internal and foreign opposition to apartheid, as did the Pan African Congress (PAC) and other groups.  Internationally, many countries condemned South Africa, isolated it from most international activities, and enacted economic sanctions against it.

Opposition to apartheid was strengthened by the repressive acts carried out by the South African government.  These included the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which 69 black demonstrators were killed by the South African police; the trial and imprisonment of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1964; the 1976 Soweto uprising, initiated by black school children, in which several hundred blacks died; the 1977 death of prominent black activist Steven Biko while in police custody; and the 1985 uprising that took place throughout South Africa during which almost 300 blacks were killed.

Until the mid-1980s, South Africa gave little indication that it was ready to end apartheid.  Then, in 1985, influenced by the economic sanctions imposed by most of the outside world, growing internal violence, and long-term demographic trends, the South African government began to change its mind.

First, the Mixed Marriage and Immorality Acts were overturned.  In 1986, President P.W. Botha  declared South Africa had "outgrown the outdated colonial system of paternalism, as well as the outdated concept of apartheid." In 1990, the new president, Frederick W. de Klerk, ended the ban on the ANC and freed Nelson Mandela.

Later in 1990, de Klerk declared it was time to negotiate a new constitution that would eliminate apartheid.  Soon afterwards, Mandela called off the ANC's armed struggle, the Separate Amenities Act was overturned, the National Party opened its ranks to all races, and the Lands and Group Areas Acts were rescinded.

South Africa after Apartheid

In 1994, South Africa held the first multiracial elections in its history.  The ANC won, and Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the country's first black president.  He confronted many difficult problems.  Social and economic discrimination remained in many forms, and government structures - at the national, provincial, and local levels - had to be reorganized under a new, nonracial constitution.

Of great significance for South Africa, and for the rest of the world, was the fact that Mandela led the way toward national reconciliation between the races.  A Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu was formed to bring to light the atrocities committed during the apartheid era.  Pardons were given to those who confessed to their crimes.

Toward the end of his five-year term, Mandela announced his intention to retire from politics.  His Vice President, Thabo Mbeki, was elected leader of the ANC.  In 1999, the ANC again won the elections and Mbeki became the country's second post-apartheid president.  He entered office facing a number of significant challenges, including extreme inequality and rampant crime.  He has, however, pledged to deepen the country's nonracial democracy and ensure economic opportunity for the previously disadvantaged groups in the population. 

From Africa in Transition, produced by the Southern Center for International Studies

 


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International Social Studies Project
UNC-CH School of Education, Peabody Hall, CB #3500, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3500
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